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Criminal Mischief: Episode #44: Setting As Character
PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html
Can a story be set just anywhere? Some can, but most rely on the location and time period to underpin and amplify the story. In the best stories, setting becomes an essential character. Can you imagine James Lee Burke’s iconic Dave Robicheaux being anywhere but Louisiana? What about Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder or Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch? Could they exist anywhere other than Amish country or Los Angeles, respectively? Jaws had to be on an island, The Godfather in New York, The Shining in an isolated mountain hotel, and Star Wars the far reaches of space.
Setting has 2 parts: Where and When
Setting establishes MOOD
Setting is not simply a description of where the scene is taking place. It is more the “feel” of the location. Don’t spew out a bunch of minute details. Pick the two or three “telling details” that reveal the feel and mood of the place. Always leave room for the readers imagination.
Description is visual. That’s a given. Add depth by always including the other senses. What are the sounds, smells, and tactile characteristics of the locale? If your scene takes place at Café du Monde in New Orleans, incorporate the smell of beignets and chicory coffee, the sounds of flatware against plates, the clomping of the horse hooves of the passing carriages. If in a bar, maybe the smell of beer and cigar smoke, the clacking of pool balls, and the stickiness of spilt beer on the bar would work. If at a kennel, the yapping of dogs and the odor of excrement might be appropriate. If in a library, perhaps the muffled whispers of the patrons and the coarseness and musty aroma of the pages in an old book would be important to setting the desired mood.
The Telling Detail: the one or two things that set the scene. Might be visual or some other sense. Something that lets the reader get a feel for the setting and then fill in the details from his own mind. What detail or group of details makes the reader “see” all the other details?
Is your setting real or fictional? Urban or rural? Small or large?
Could your story be set anywhere else? Would it be a better story if it were?
What is unique about your setting?
What is your Protagonist’s and/or antagonist’s relationship to the setting? Has your character been there before, have a familiarity with the location, or is he a stranger in a strange land?
Is your setting a “story character”?
Description is visual so sight is a given, but which other senses can you bring to your setting? What are the sounds, smells, and tactile characteristics of the locale?
Setting is not simply a description of where the scene is taking place. It is more the “feel” of the location. Don’t spew out a bunch of minute details. Pick the two or three that sets the feel and mood of the place. Always leave room for the readers imagination.
What setting expresses your stories worldview and theme best?
Research setting by whatever means you can. If you live in the area or know it well, then much of the needed info is already in your head. If not, go there if you can but often that isn’t possible. Use the various map programs. Go to webpages that deal with the area and check out the history, geography, populace, businesses, and don’t forget the real estate sites that show homes and buildings in that area.
Try This: Walk into ten places you’ve never been before. Write down the first five things that make an impression on you. Now write a scene that takes place in each of these location.
Black Cherry Blues–James Lee Burke
Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window. The night is hot and breathless, the clouds painted like horsetails against the sky; a peal of thunder rumbles on the Gulf like an apple rolling around in the bottom a wooden barrel, and the first raindrops ping against the window fan. She sleeps on her side, and the sheet molds her thigh, the curve of her hip, her breast. In the flicker of the heat lightning the sun freckles on her bare shoulder look like brown flaws in sculpted marble.
In Cold Blood – – Truman Capote
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with it’s hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, and a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
The Long Goodbye–Raymond Chandler
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.
The Concrete Blonde—Michael Connelly
The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes. It was an old California Craftsman with a full front porch and two dormer windows set on the long slope of the roof. But no light shone behind the glass, not even from above the doorway. Instead, the house cast a foreboding darkness about it that not even the glow from the streetlight could penetrate. A man could be standing there on the porch and Bosch knew he probably wouldn’t be able to see him.
Cafe du Monde. No place like it. I never visited the Big Easy without at least one trip for their beignets and chicory coffee. The aroma of each hung thick beneath the green awning that covered the patio, as did the din of conversation. It was just after eight and the place was packed, as usual, but Nicole and I managed to snag a table along the railing. Out on the sidewalk a street performer, a guy dressed like a clown, face paint and all, squeaked together balloon animals that he handed to one excited kid after another. Parents dropped bills into the small aluminum bucket near his feet. Free enterprise, baby.
Also From A-List—DP Lyle
Bourbon Street actually has three personalities, depending on the time of day. The one most folks equate with it is nighttime when it becomes one big street party. Stretching from Canal Street to Jackson Square, the neon blazes, the alcohol flows, and some of the best music in the world spills out of bar after bar. Not to mention the strip clubs. Ones that caters to any and all persuasions. Short of murder, few things are off limits. Of course, the Quarter sees more than its share of homicides, too.
During the day, Bourbon is an altogether different experience. For sure, you don’t want to see it around sunrise. It smells of garbage and stale alcohol, the detritus of the previous night. Like a decaying corpse. Refuse crews and street cleaners do yeoman’s work to prep it for a new onslaught.
But by noon, the trash is hauled away, the pavement dries from the hosing it has received, and the stench magically evaporates. People appear, street performers take up their stations, and music begins to crank up.
Circle of life in the Big Easy.
Jake Longly is hoping for a few weeks of fun with Nicole in the warm Orange County, CA sun—The OC, baby—before hopping up to LA for the filming of Nicole’s sure-to-be-a-hit screenplay. But on arrival they discover that Nicole’s friend Megan Weatherly, a small-market local TV reporter, has picked up an anonymous stalker. Megan thinks he’s simply an infatuated fan but Jake and Nicole, as as well Megan’s new intern Abby, also a past stalking victim, think he’s potentially dangerous. As the shadowy man escalates his harassment, becomes more threatening, and circles closer and closer to Megan’s world, Ray and Pancake arrive. Are Ray’s past military black ops experience and Pancake’s computer skills enough to expose the predator in time?
The stalker is no fool and likely has past experience. He makes no mistakes and manages to cover his trail completely. So, how do you identify and locate the untraceable? How do you protect Megan from a potentially lethal phantom?
Suddenly the sunshine and safety of The OC seem more facade than reality. Jake and crew must punch through that facade and dig into the dark world of celebrity stalking. The clock is ticking.
Check Out the other Jake Longly Books, as well as my other series, here: http://www.dplylemd.com/books.html
SKIN IN THE GAME is a BookBub Deal from 11-23 through 11-27.
It’s FREE. Check it out
Who are Bobby Cain and Harper McCoy?
Raised as siblings by an itinerant “gypsy” family, knife expert Bobby Cain, trained by the US military in the lethal art of covert eliminations, and Harper McCoy, nurtured by the US Navy and the CIA to run black ops and wage psychological warfare, are now civilians. Of a sort. Employing the skills learned from the “family” and their training, they now fix the unfixable. Case in point: Retired General William Kessler hires the duo to track down his missing granddaughter, a Vanderbilt University co-ed. Their search leads them to a small, bucolic, lake-side town in central Tennessee and into a world of prostitution, human trafficking, and serial murder. The question then becomes: Will their considerable skills be enough for Cain and Harper to save the young woman, and themselves, from a sociopath with “home field” advantage, a hunter’s skills, and his own deeply disturbing agenda?
Familial DNA Solves a 35-year-old Case
On Thanksgiving Day in 1984, 14 YO Wendy Jerome left a friend’s house and disappeared. For a few hours then her body was found in a school alcove. She had been raped and beaten to death. For 35 years, no one was charged with the crime. Until Familial DNA helped investigators focus on Timothy Williams. His DNA was collected and proved a match for the crime scene DNA obtained from Wendy’s corpse.
Familial DNA testing looks for matches that are “close” but not necessarily “exact.” Just close enough to indicate that the crime scene DNA tested came from someone closely related to the unknown perpetrator. This helps narrow the suspect list. DNA is then collected from suspects and standard DNA testing looks for a match.
Familial DNA has been involved in many high-profile cases including The Grim Sleeper and the Golden State Killer.
Wendy Jerome Murder
The Grim Sleeper
The Golden State Killer:
Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #40:Nasty Deadly Poisons
PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html
Crime writers love poisons. Even those who write the more cozy variety. I mean, arsenic and old lace? Arsenic, the queen of poisons, is often used as are the opioids and amphetamines and a few others. But maybe you want to explore more uncommon, and deadly, options for your story. Some are easy to come by, others a bit more difficult but all have been used and just might add to your story.
Georgi Markov: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgi_Markov
Sarin(and VX): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarin
Alexander Litvinenko: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Litvinenko
Batrachotoxin (BTX): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batrachotoxin
Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna
7 Of The World’s Deadliest Plants: https://www.britannica.com/list/7-of-the-worlds-deadliest-plants
10 Deadliest Poisons Known To Man: https://www.thoughtco.com/deadliest-poisons-known-to-man-4058116
Top 10 Deadliest Poisons in the World: https://www.valuewalk.com/2018/12/top-10-deadliest-poisons-world/
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From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS
TOXICOLOGICAL TESTING PROCEDURES
The biggest problem facing the toxicologist is that there are literally thousands of drugs and chemicals that are harmful, addictive, or lethal if ingested, injected, or inhaled. Some even absorb directly through the skin. Toxicological testing is time-consuming and expensive, and few, if any, labs can afford to perform such testing on every case. For this reason, the testing must be as focused as possible.
An understanding of the circumstances surrounding the death is important since clues at the scene often point toward a particular drug. For example, a young girl found on her bed at home with an empty pill bottle at her side would lead to one avenue of testing while a long-term addict found in an alley with fresh needle marks would follow another path. The more clues as to the likely toxin that the circumstances of the death can supply, the narrower the field of possibilities the toxicologist must consider.
THE TWO-TIERED SYSTEM
When testing for drugs or poisons, the toxicologist typically follows a two-tiered approach. Initial tests, called presumptive tests, are for screening purposes and are typically easier and cheaper to perform. When negative, they indicate that the drug or class of drugs in question is not present and further testing is unnecessary. When positive, they indicate that a particular substance possibly is present. By using these screening tests the number of possibilities can be greatly reduced and the toxicologist can move on to the second phase, which utilizes more focused confirmatory testing. These tests are more expensive and time-consuming but are designed to establish the identity of the exact drug present. This two-tiered approach saves considerable time and money.
This same approach is used whether the toxicologist is asked to analyze blood, urine, and other materials obtained from a person (living or deceased) or to test a batch of seized material believed to be illicit drugs.
Let’s say a corpse is found in an alleyway known for methamphetamine sales and use. If blood samples obtained at autopsy show a positive presumptive test for amphetamines, further confirmatory testing to identify the exact amphetamine present is indicated. If the test is negative, no further testing for amphetamines is done and the toxicologist will search for other classes of drugs.
To be doubly certain, the toxicologist prefers to find the drug or poison in at least two separate locations. Finding the toxin in the blood and the liver tissue is more reassuring than finding it in either one alone.
Or let’s say that the toxicologist is asked to test a seized substance and doing so shows a positive presumptive test for cocaine. Further confirmatory testing would then be indicated. If the screening test is negative, the substance may be analyzed for other drugs, but cocaine has been ruled out.
In most labs, testing for controlled and illegal drugs consumes 75 percent of the lab’s time and resources. The areas most often tested in this type of examination are blood and urine. After one of the presumptive tests shows that a particular drug or class of drugs is likely present, confirmatory testing with the combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC-MS) or infrared spectroscopy are used to accurately identify which substance is present. See the appendix for details on these procedures.
Presumptive testing comes in many varieties. Common toxicological screening tests are color tests, immunoassays, thin layer chromatography, and ultraviolet spectroscopy.
Tests in which a reagent (any active chemical solution) is added to blood, urine, or tissue extractions, and if the particular chemical tested for is present, a color change reaction will occur. The color change results from a chemical reaction between the drug and the reagent, which produces a new compound that imparts a specific color to the mixture. These tests are cheap, easy, and quick, and can determine if a specific chemical or class of chemicals are present in the material tested. If it does not indicate that the toxin is present, further testing is not necessary.
There are a wide variety of color tests that reveal the presence of many types of drugs. Some of the most common are:
TRINDER’S TEST: This reagent, containing ferric nitrate and mercuric chloride, turns violet in the presence of salicylates (aspirin and similar compounds).
MARQUIS TEST: This reagent contains formaldehyde and sulfuric acid and turns purple in the presence of morphine, heroin, and most opiates, and brownish orange if mixed with amphetamines or methamphetamines.
VAN URK TEST: This is a test for LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. The reagent is a mixture of dimethylaminobenzaldehyde, hydrochloric acid (HCl), and ethanol. It turns purple to indicate a positive reaction.
DILLIE-KOPPANYI TEST: In this test, the sample is treated with cobalt acetate in methanol and then with isopropylamine in methanol. It turns violet-blue if barbiturates are present.
DUQUENOIS-LEVINE TEST: This three-step test determines if marijuana or other cannabinoids are present. The sample is treated with a mixture of vanillin and acetaldehyde in ethanol, then with HCl, and finally with chloroform. A deep purple color is a positive result.
SCOTT TEST: This is also a three-step test that uses a mixture of cobalt thiocyanate and glycerine, followed by HCl, and then chloroform. Cocaine turns blue after the thiocyanate is added, changes to pink with the HCl, and then blue once again when chloroform is added.
Other Screening Tests
IMMUNOASSAY: Immunoassays, which measure the concentration of a drug in a liquid (see the appendix), are easy, very sensitive, and useful for rapidly screening urine samples for certain drugs. However, the manufactured antibodies can also react with compounds that are very similar to the sought-after drug, a lack of specificity that makes this a presumptive test rather than a confirmatory one.
THIN LAYER CHROMATOGRAPHY (TLC): TLC (see the appendix) not only tentatively identifies many chemicals, but is also useful for separating the components of a sample. Once TLC has tentatively identified a substance, its identity is confirmed with mass spectrometry.
GAS CHROMATOGRAPHY (GC): As with TLC, GC’s (see the appendix) primary use is in making a presumptive identification and separating various compounds from one another. A positive result is confirmed by using mass spectrometry.
ULTRAVIOLET (UV) SPECTROSCOPY: This test takes advantage of the fact that different chemicals absorb UV light in varying amounts (see the appendix). Since it can’t identify the exact compound, it is only useful for screening
A Typical Screening Protocol
Each lab has its own protocol for drug screening. What tests are used and in what order they are performed depends on the available staff and equipment, budgetary restrictions, and the bias of the toxicologist in charge. But most labs have certain standard screens they employ when first confronted with an unknown sample. These basic screens might include:
ALCOHOL SCREEN: GC is used to isolate and identify the various alcohols and related compounds such as acetone.
ACID SCREEN: Immunoassay of urine samples is used to detect acidic compounds such as barbiturates and aspirin.
ALKALI SCREEN: GC screens for substances that dissolve in alkaline solutions. These substances include many tranquilizers, synthetic narcotics, and antidepressants.
NARCOTIC SCREEN: Urine immunoassay reveals opiates, cocaine, and methadone.
By using these general screening procedures, the toxicologist can quickly exclude many commonly encountered drugs and narrow his area of search for those that are present. Based on these results, further screening and confirmatory tests are used to ultimately identify any unknown substance.
A good confirmatory test must possess sensitivity and specificity in that it must recognize the chemical in question (sensitivity) and be able to identify it to the exclusion of all others (specificity). This means that once a chemical has undergone a screening test and a presumptive identity has been established, a confirmatory test will accurately determine the true identity of the unknown substance.
The most important confirmatory test used by the toxicologist is mass spectrometry (MS) (see the appendix). In MS, the sample is bombarded with electrons, which fragment the chemical into ionic fractions. This fragmentation pattern is called a mass spectrum. It is different for each element and compound. This means that it gives a chemical fingerprint of the chemical being tested and can identify virtually any compound. When the mass spectrum of an unknown substance is compared to known reference standards, the identity of the unknown sample comes to light. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) maintains a database of the mass spectra of known chemicals.
In the forensic toxicology laboratory, MS is usually employed in combination with gas chromatography (GC). This combination is called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). In GC/MS, gas chromatography is used to separate the test sample into components and MS is employed to identify each component. The GC/MS is as close to being foolproof as any technique available.
Though used less often than MS, infrared spectroscopy (IR) can also determine the chemical fingerprint of the tested substance (see the appendix). Instead of electrons, the substance is exposed to infrared light. When any light strikes an object or substance, it is transmitted (passed through), absorbed, or reflected. When exposed to infrared light, each compound transmits and absorbs the light in its own unique pattern. These unique patterns determine which compounds are present, and thus identify the chemical substance tested. This test is also used in conjunction with GC. This combination is termed GC/IR.
INTERPRETING THE RESULTS
After testing has revealed the presence and concentration of a chemical substance, the hard part begins. The toxicologist must now assess what the results mean. He evaluates each of the drugs present with an eye toward the route the drug was administered and whether the concentrations played a role in the subject’s behavior or death.
Route of Entry
The route of entry of the toxin is very important since it might provide a clue as to whether the victim self-administered the drug or someone else administered the drug. For example, if a drug was injected and the victim possessed no means to do so or if the injection site was in an area that made self-administration unlikely, homicide might be a stronger consideration.
Another important fact is that the concentration of the toxin is usually greatest at the administration site. Ingested toxins are more likely to be found in the stomach, intestines, or liver, while inhaled gases will be concentrated in the lungs. If injected, the drug can often be isolated from the tissues around the injection site. Drugs taken intravenously bypass the stomach and liver, directly enter the bloodstream, and are quickly distributed throughout the body. In this circumstance, the toxicologist may find high concentrations of the drug in the blood and in multiple tissues of the body, but little or none in the stomach and liver as would be seen with ingestion. This will help him determine the route of intake.
Drug Blood Level
Earlier we discussed the concept of bioavailability and how the level of a drug in the blood closely correlates with the drug’s actions and toxicity. This means that finding a large amount of a toxin in the victim’s stomach does not necessarily mean that the drug was the cause of death. The important fact is that drugs in the stomach will not kill. They must first be absorbed into the blood and distributed to the body.
For example, if the toxicologist found a large amount of a tranquilizers in a victim’s stomach, particularly if most of the pills were intact and had not been digested, and also found a low blood concentration of the drug, he would likely conclude that the pills were taken shortly before death and played little or no role in the victim’s demise.
There are exceptions. In cases of caustic acid and alkali (lye or caustic soda) ingestion, the blood levels are not important since these chemicals cause direct contact damage and do not need to be absorbed into the body to do harm (discussed later in this chapter).
Still, in most situations, blood levels are important because they correlate more strongly with the effects of the chemical in question. When the toxicologist determines a blood level of a certain chemical, he might assign it to one of four broad categories:
NORMAL: This would be the level expected in the general population under normal circumstances. An example would be low levels of cyanide. Even though this is a deadly poison, it is found in the environment, and therefore most people have low normal levels of cyanide in their blood. Smokers have even higher levels, but this would still be considered normal.
THERAPEUTIC: This is the level that your doctor strives for. If he gives you an antibiotic or a medication for high blood pressure, he wants to accomplish a blood level of the drug that will bring about a therapeutic effect. Patients with certain cardiac problems may be placed on digitalis. The doctor will periodically draw a blood test to check the therapeutic level of the drug. The reason he does this is that too little will offer less benefit to the patient and too much can cause severe problems since digitalis is potentially a deadly poison.
TOXIC: A toxic level is one that may cause harm or death. When a prescribed drug passes the therapeutic level and reaches the toxic level it has moved from being a medication to being a poison. Using the example of digitalis, a toxic level might lead to nausea, vomiting, and a yellowish tinge to the person’s vision. Or it may cause a deadly change in the rhythm of the heart. These would be toxic effects.
LETHAL: This is the level at which the drug in question would consistently cause death. In toxicology we use the term LD50 to measure a chemical’s lethal potential. The LD50 of a drug is the blood concentration at which 50 percent of people would die.
From this, you might assume that the toxicologist simply has to determine the blood level of any toxin and then he can determine if the level was toxic or lethal. Though that may seem logical, it is far from the truth.
Each person reacts to chemicals and toxins differently. Much of this variance can be related to age, sex, body size and weight, genetics, and nutritional and health status. An individual who is young, robust, and healthy should tolerate more of a given drug than would someone who was old, thin, and sickly. And in general, that is true. As mentioned earlier, a person’s habits also affect how he will react. The toxicologist must consider these facts when assessing whether a given level of a drug is toxic or lethal, or whether it contributed to the subject’s behavior or death.
Acute vs. Chronic Poisoning
At times the toxicologist is asked to determine whether a poisoning is acute or chronic. A good example is arsenic, which can kill if given in a single large dose or if given in repeated smaller doses over weeks or months. In either case, the blood level could be high. But the determination of whether the poisoning was acute or chronic may be extremely important. If acute, the suspect list may belong. If chronic, the suspect list would include only those who had long-term contact with the victim, such as a family member, a caretaker, or a family cook.
So, how does the toxicologist make this determination?
In acute arsenic poisoning, the ME would expect to find high levels of arsenic in the stomach and the blood, as well as evidence of corrosion and bleeding in the stomach and intestines, as these are commonly seen in acute arsenic ingestion. If he found little or no arsenic in the stomach and no evidence of acute injury in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but high arsenic levels in the blood and tissues, he might suspect that the poisoning was chronic in nature. Here, an analysis of the victim’s hair can be invaluable.
Hair analysis for arsenic (and several other toxins) can reveal exposure to arsenic and also give a timeline of the exposure. The reason this is possible is that arsenic is deposited in the cells of the hair follicles in proportion to the blood level of the arsenic at the time the cell was produced.
In hair growth, the cells of the hair’s follicle undergo change, lose their nuclei, and are incorporated into the growing hair shaft. New follicular cells are produced to replace them and this cycle continues throughout life. Follicular cells produced while the blood levels of arsenic are high contain the poison, and as they are incorporated into the hair shaft the arsenic is, too. On the other hand, any follicular cells that appeared while the arsenic levels were low contain little or no arsenic.
In general, hair grows about a half-inch per month. This means that the toxicologist can cut the hair into short segments, measure the arsenic level in each, and reveal a timeline for arsenic exposure in the victim.
Let’s suppose that a wife, who prepares all the family meals, slowly poisoned her husband with arsenic. She began by adding small amounts of the poison to his food in February and continued until his death in July. In May he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea, vomiting, and weight loss (all symptoms of arsenic poisoning). No diagnosis was made, but since he was doing better after ten days in the hospital, he was sent home. Such a circumstance is not unusual since these types of gastrointestinal symptoms are common and arsenic poisoning is rare. Physicians rarely think of it and test for it. After returning home, the unfortunate husband once again fell ill and finally died.
As part of the autopsy procedure, the toxicologist might test the victim’s hair for toxins, and if he did, he would find the arsenic. He could then section and test the hair to determine the arsenic level essentially month by month. If the victim’s hair was three inches long, the half-inch closest to the scalp would represent July, the next half inch June, the next May, and so on until the last half inch would reflect his exposure to arsenic in February, the month his poisoning began. Arsenic levels are ex-
pressed in parts per million (ppm).
The toxicologist would look at this timeline of exposure and likely determine that the exposure occurred in the victim’s home. The police would then have a few questions for the wife and would likely obtain a search warrant to look for arsenic within the home.
To dig deeper into this subject grab a copy of either
FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html
HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html
Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #30: Evidence
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From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS
If Locard’s Exchange Principle is the cornerstone of forensic science, evidence is the heart and soul of the crime lab. Indeed, evidence is the sole reason it exists. Without evidence, what would the lab do? Evidence is used to determine if a crime has been committed, to link a suspect to a scene, to corroborate or refute an alibi or statement, to identify a perpetrator or victim, to exonerate the innocent, to induce a confession, and to direct further investigation.
The modern crime lab attempts to identify and compare any evidence it receives and then links this evidence to a particular individual to the exclusion of all others.
This brings up a critical concept: Evidence is used to eliminate suspects rather than to point the finger at any one person. Individualizing evidence eliminates everyone else and leaves the perpetrator standing alone.
This isn’t a modern concept. Again, we look to Sherlock Holmes, who discusses in several of his stories his belief that good evidence and clear reasoning would eliminate all choices but one. My favorite comes from “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” in which he states, “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
DIRECT AND CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
Evidence may be either direct or circumstantial. Direct evidence directly establishes a fact. Examples are eyewitness statements and confessions, which are subjective by nature and, as such, are burdened with the problems that plague all subjective information. Eyewitnesses are notoriously incorrect in their identification of a suspect and their recall of events because memory and recall are affected by the witnesses’ mental and physical health and abilities, prejudices, experiences, and the emotion of the situation. What if the witness had poor vision or poor hearing, or held racial prejudices, or was highly emotional? Could his perception of who did what to whom, when, and how be distorted? Absolutely. Though most often these distortions are not intentional, they exist nonetheless. Studies of this phenomenon have shown that eyewitnesses may be wrong as much as 50 percent of the time.
On the other hand, circumstantial evidence is more objective and is subject to the laws of probability. This leads to the curious fact that circumstantial evidence is often more reliable than direct evidence. Unlike an eyewitness account, accurate science is not altered by subjectivity. Its interpretation might be, but the result is the result.
Circumstantial evidence is any evidence that is not direct. Blood, hair, fibers, bullets, DNA—indeed, all forensic science evidence—are circumstantial in nature. This type of evidence requires that the judge and jury infer something from the presented evidentiary fact. For example, if a fingerprint or hair found at the crime scene is matched to a suspect, the jury may infer that the print is that of the defendant and the fact that it was found at the crime scene links the defendant to the scene. Under most circumstances, this is not absolute proof, but is highly suggestive that he was involved in the crime.
IDENTIFICATION AND COMPARISON
The forensic analysis of evidence items is done for two main purposes: identification and comparison. Identification is done to determine what exactly a particular item or substance is. Is this white powder heroin or crystal methamphetamine or sugar? Who manufactured the shoe that left the print at the crime scene? Are there petrochemical residues present in the debris of a suspicious fire? Is this brown carpet stain dried blood or chocolate sauce?
Identification in such circumstances is critical since, if the powder is sugar and not heroin or the stain is indeed chocolate sauce and not blood, there might be no crime at all. Conversely, if heroin or blood is identified, either may become the crucial evidence in a criminal proceeding. Such identifications make up an important part of the work done by the crime lab. After testing, the examiner may state that the questioned substance is present, not present, or that the testing is inconclusive and the presence of the substance can be neither ruled in nor out.
Comparisons are done to see if a suspect item or substance shares a common origin with a known one. That is, did they come from the same person, place, or object? Did this fingerprint, hair, or blood come from the suspect? Does this paint smudge found on a hit-and-run victim’s clothing match that of the suspect’s car? Does the bullet removed from a murder victim match the one test-fired from the suspect’s gun?
For example, after comparing a crime scene fingerprint to one obtained from a suspect, the examiner may state that the two match (bad news for the suspect), do not match (may exonerate the suspect), or that the comparison was inconclusive, perhaps because the crime scene print was of poor quality. In the last case, the suspect is neither cleared nor condemned.
CLASS VS. INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERISTICS
Some types of evidence carry more weight than others. Hair and fibers can suggest, while DNA and fingerprints can absolutely make a connection. The difference is that some evidence shares class characteristics and others individual characteristics.
Class characteristics are those that are not unique to a particular object, but rather serve to place the particular bit of evidence into a specific class. For ex- ample, if a victim has been shot, the determination that the bullet was from a
.38 caliber handgun would make all .38 caliber handguns the possible murder weapon. Other calibers would not belong to this class and would be excluded from consideration. Alternatively, blood recovered from a crime scene could be found to be type B. It could have come from any of the tens of millions of people who share this blood type. If the suspect has type B blood, he remains a suspect and DNA testing will be required to conclusively match the sample to the suspect. But if he has type A blood, he is excluded.
A single piece of class evidence can rarely convict, but it can often exonerate. The above type B blood would exclude all persons with a different blood type. They belong to a different class and only those in the class of individuals with type B blood would remain in the suspect pool. However, if multiple types of class evidence are associated with one suspect, the weight of the evidence may make a strong case. A classic example is the Atlanta child murders case.
In cases such as this, the sheer number of the pieces of class evidence makes coincidence extremely unlikely. What are the odds that someone else left behind this combination of fibers and hair? Though class evidence is not absolute proof that a suspect is connected to a particular location, and each bit of class evidence taken alone may not be strong, when a large number of matching evidence is found, the odds that the suspect was present at the crime scene becomes overwhelming.
Individual characteristics are as close to absolute proof of the origin of the evidence item as is possible. The most individualizing types of evidence are finger- prints and DNA, since no two people possess either the same prints or the same DNA (the exception being identical twins who have the same DNA but different fingerprints).
Impression evidence, such as bullet ballistic markings, shoe and tire tracks, and tool marks, may be unique enough to be considered individual evidence. Also, fracture or tear patterns, such as in broken glass, torn paper, or matches ripped from a matchbook, may possess edges that fit perfectly together like a jigsaw puzzle, thus indicating the pieces shared a common source.
The overriding principle in the analysis of individual characteristics is that no two things are exactly alike. No two guns mark a bullet the same way. No two pieces of glass fracture in the same manner. No two pairs of shoes or sets of car tires wear in exactly the same way.
The goal of the criminalist is to identify individualizing characteristics, for these truly “make the case” by positively identifying the source of the questioned evidence. If ballistics matched the markings on a .38 caliber bullet to those from a bullet test-fired by a suspect weapon, these markings are individual evidence. They separate this particular gun from all other .38 caliber weapons and indicate that this particular .38 was the murder weapon. Similarly, in the earlier type B blood example we just discussed, DNA could be used to eliminate all of the people with type B blood except for the one person who actually left the blood at the crime scene.
The bottom line is that class evidence can considerably narrow the field of suspects and individual evidence can narrow it further, perhaps to a single person.
RECONSTRUCTIVE AND ASSOCIATIVE EVIDENCE
Whether the evidence is class or individual in quality, it may be used to reconstruct the events of the crime or to associate a suspect with the crime scene.
Reconstructive evidence is any evidence that helps in reconstructing the crime scene. Broken glass or pried doors and windows may reveal the perpetrator’s points of entry and exit. Was the window broken from the inside or the outside? Did the perpetrator use a key or a screwdriver to gain entry? Shoe prints, blood spatters, and the trajectory of bullets may show where in the room everyone was and exactly how and in what sequence the crime occurred. Was the victim attacked from the front or from behind? Was the murder quick or did a struggle occur? Was the prime suspect at the scene at the time of the murder or did he, as he says, stumble into the scene later?
Reconstructive evidence helps the ME determine who did what, where, when, and how, as well as helps determine who is being truthful and who might be lying. Crime scene reconstruction is discussed in greater detail later in the chapter.
Associative evidence is evidence that ties the suspect to the crime scene. Fingerprints, shoe prints, hair, fibers, blood and other body fluids, knives, bullets, guns, and paint, among others, may be used to link the suspect to the scene, or prove that the fingerprints, hair, or blood is not his and that someone else must have committed the crime.
This linkage was discussed in Chapter One, but is worth a brief mention here. Evidence is supposed to link a suspect to a person, place, or object. The finding of a victim’s hair or fibers from the victim’s clothing on the clothing of the suspect suggests that they had some degree of contact, and thus links the two together. A suspect’s fingerprint, blood, or semen at the scene of a robbery, murder, or rape strongly links him to the crime scene. A murder weapon that holds a suspect’s fingerprints requires a great deal of explaining. Each of these circumstances links elements of the crime to the suspect. The link can be established through the criminalists collecting evidence and the analytical procedures of the crime lab work. When successful, the evidence may find its way into court and result in a conviction.
To dig deeper into this subject grab a copy of either:
HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html
FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html
PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html
Storytelling In Dixie by DP Lyle
Here’s the thing about the South—if you can’t tell a story, they won’t feed you. They’ll simply deposit you behind the barn and let you wither away. That doesn’t happen often because everyone down there can spin a yarn. Some better than others, but a story is a story. This is a rich tradition and congers up names like William Faulkner, James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Truman Capote (who spent much of his childhood in Alabama), James Lee Burke, and the list goes on and on.
Where did this tradition come from? Since much of the South was settled by Scotch- Irish immigrants, they transported their storytelling skills across the pond. Ever hear of a Scotsman who couldn’t reel off a story over a few glasses of whiskey? Me, either. Plus, the South was rural, poor, and with fewer resources, so much of society revolved around the farm, and hearth and home. Books were a luxury, meaning that family entertainment came from stories told by the fireplace.
I grew up in Alabama. Huntsville to be exact. Not your typical southern town. Sure we had acres of farmland, churches on every corner, enough pickup trucks to cause a traffic jam, and a cacophony of country music, but we also had a space program. Snuggled up to the city is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where Werner von Braun and cohorts built the rockets that sent men into orbit and eventually to the surface of the moon. Made for an interesting soup of folks. Rednecks and scientist, all dining on barbecue and biscuits, and of course pecan pie.
So, what is it that makes Southern storytelling so compelling? It’s the many facets of the area. You can’t write about the South without considering country music, the blues, country stores, cornbread, sweet tea, and the weather.
Weather: Weather is a character in Southern stories. The rain, the hair-raising electrical storms, and, of course, the heat and humidity conspire to alter everything in life. The cracking of lightning puts nerves on edge while the sauna-like air wilts your clothing, slows your walk, and stretches out your drawl like back strap molasses creeping over a mess of hotcakes. In his famous “Ten Rules of Writing,” Elmore Leonard admonished authors to never start a story with the weather. He forgot to tell that to James Lee Burke. His Dave Robicheaux series moves around the swamplands of Louisiana, a place where weather is most definitely a character. Don’t believe it. Read the first paragraph of his Edgar Award-winning Black Cherry Blues. Breathtaking. And his evocation of the weather draws you quickly and deeply into the story.
Characters: Southern characters are often larger than life. The local sheriff with a big gun and an even bigger belly, the cheerleader with the big smile and bouncy blond hair, the farmer with his coveralls, straw angled from his mouth, and a sun-baked red neck. There’s Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, who defies description, and Scout, who gives a child’s-eye view of her father Atticus as he fights for right and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird. Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men introduced us to Willie Stark, who channels the one-of-a-kind Huey P. Long, a man whose shadow still lays over Louisiana. Not to mention the modern-day Don Quixote Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces.
It seems almost everyone in the South has a nickname. Sometimes even a nickname for their nickname. My Little League baseball coach was known as Breadman—I never knew his real name—and he was mostly called Bread. We played against another coach called Buttermilk—didn’t know his name either—but he was called simply Milk. See, a nickname for a nickname.
Language: Yeah, we say ain’t a lot. It’s a great word. Has a soft feel as it rolls off the tongue. And of course y’all, which is a point of confusion for those from up north. Is y’all singular or plural? The answer is yes, and yes. It’s both. You meet someone on the street and you might say, “How y’all doing?” You could mean how that person is doing or how they and their “Mom and ‘em” are doing. Which brings up that phrase. Mom and ‘em means all those folks around you mom-the entire family, friends, neighborhood, coworkers. It’s more or less all inclusive. And then there’s “all y’all.” Makes sense this would be pleural but not so fast. If you ask, “How all y’all doing?” you might mean how the family or some grouping is, but you might mean how is “all of you” doing? It might seem confusing, but really, it ain’t.
Food: Food is as Southern as anything. If you’ve never traveled to New Orleans, then you have no idea what great food truly is. We love our barbecue, fried chicken, grits, turnip greens, squash, cornbread (no sugar please), sweet tea (lot’s of sugar please), and banana pudding and pecan pie. You won’t find tofu and gluten-free is a foreign concept.
Football: You must understand football to understand the South. Example: I went to the University of Alabama. Roll Tide. I hate Auburn. Enough said.
If you can’t see the story potential in all this, then bless your heart—an expression that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to impart. It might be proffered as a literal gesture of good will, or it might mean: You’re mentally defective and I feel sorry for your shortcomings. It’s all about the context, tone, inflection, and body language.
These deep roots and my understanding of the rhythm of Southern culture led me to set most of my fictional stories in the area. My Dub Walker forensic thriller series takes place in and around Huntsville were I utilize many of the high-tech and forensic science techniques developed at NASA in the stories. Dr. Wendell Volek, a character in my first Dub book Stress Fracture, is actually Dr. David Hathaway, the director of NASA’s solar imaging program as well as the developer of the VISAR system for digital image enhancement. I spent some time with David and he explained VISAR to me in great detail. It became part of the book.
The stories in my Jake Longly comedic thriller series are scattered around the South. Jake lives in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the initial story Deep Six takes place. Then, on to New Orleans for A-List and the Florida panhandle for Sunshine State, coming in May. The next in the series, Rigged, will be out next year and is set in the wonderfully artsy community of Fairhope, Alabama. Each of these ares has its own distinct flavor, but all are quintessentially Southern.
I have another new book coming in October, the first in my Bobby Cain/Harper McCoy series. It’s titled Skin In The Game and is set in and around Nashville, including the shores of Tims Ford Lake, a beautiful body of water in central Tennessee.
Two of my three published short stories are also set in the South. “Even Steven” appeared in Thriller 3: Love Is Murder and is set in Huntsville. “Bottom Line” can be found in For The Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired By the Sherlock Holmes Canon and is set in a fictional Southern locale.
So, my Southern roots are deep and broad and they inspire my stories at every turn. I now live in Orange County, CA, but my heart and soul belongs, and always will, in the South. But, that’s another story.
Originally published in Mystery Readers Journal the publication of Mystery Readers International.
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My agent Kimberley Cameron just announced our new deal with Suspense Publishing to bring out an updated version of MORE FORENSICS AND FICTION and re-issues of my first two Dub Walker novels—STRESS FRACTURE and HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL. Thanks, John and Shannon.
For more on these books and my others:
New deals for June 19, 2019
Macavity Award-winning author Doug Lyle’s MORE FORENSICS AND FICTION, an updated version of his “Crime Writers Morbidly Curious Questions Expertly Answered,” and STRESS FRACTURE and HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, reissues of his Dub Walker series thrillers, to John Raab and Shannon Raab at Suspense Publishing, in an exclusive submission, for publication in 2020, by Kimberley Cameron at Kimberley Cameron & Associates.